We live in amazing times.
I wanted to start this story – about Cataract Falls in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park – with a joke about the irony of naming something Cataract Falls.
Such as, Mr. Magoo visited the Smokies and fell down the falls because he couldn’t see, and then, they named the falls after him.
Now, setting aside the fact that Mr. Magoo references in the year of 2022 may not be the best way to grab the internet’s attention, the attempt at humor fell flat anyway.
But in the process, I stumbled upon one of the real dangers of our age: The internet wormhole. No. I didn’t spend hours Googling Mr. Magoo.
Why is it called Cataract Falls?
However, I did wonder how Cataract Falls got its name. And so I started a little Google search, a dangerous thing to do for someone with a wandering attention span.
I discovered that a cataract is a large, powerful waterfall. Cataract Falls is a lovely place, but it is neither large nor powerful. And also, I discovered that naming it Cataract Falls is fairly redundant because it basically translates to “waterfall fall”.
I thought to myself, well maybe that makes sense.
Maybe having cataracts – the medical condition that causes cloudy, muddled vision – is like trying to look through the cascading water.
Perhaps. But probably not.
The next thing I know, it’s quite a bit of time later and I’m reading about how the term cataract dates back to the 14th century. And likely comes from the Latin word cataracta – which means portcullis.
The medical condition cataracts is likely called that because the obstructed vision is rather like a portcullis’ heavy iron grating that obstructs entrance into a castle or fortress.
Because, of course, it does.
Cataract Falls, however, was named before the internet ever existed. And I’m willing to bet that the person who named the falls didn’t know about cataracts, 14th century Latin, or in fact, what the heck a portcullis is.
What is Cataract Falls?
It is, simply put, one of the most easily accessible waterfalls in the Smokies.
As noted, it is neither particularly large nor powerful. However, it is a little more than a half mile from the Sugarlands Visitor Center. The short hike means it’s a great piece of a multi-part itinerary.
You can see the beautiful Cataract Falls and then hike to other – frankly more impressive waterfalls – or maybe jump back in the car and tour the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail or have a picnic at the Chimney Tops.
Among hardcore hikers, it’s regarded as a tourist trail – mostly because of its ease and popularity. You will likely run into other hikers on your trip.
If you value remote mountain experiences, this may not be the one for you.
It is a great trail for families introducing younger kids to the mountains or for those who might be overwhelmed by more strenuous trails.
How do I get to Cataract Falls?
Take a right out of the visitors center, go past the restrooms and head to the Fighting Creek Nature Trail on the left. Follow the trail. You’ll cross a footbridge and the Cataract Falls trail will go right to the waterfall.
The trail itself is relatively flat with an elevation gain of 29 ft over the 0.6 mile hike out. There are picnic tables at the start. And the hike will take under a half hour to complete.
There is parking available at the visitors center.
The trail surface is cement and asphalt But there is also a wooden bridge and some packed dirt. It is typically wide.
I saw one commenter mention the trail is a great spot for dogs. It’s not. It’s important to note that pets are not allowed on the trail, according to the National Park Service.
If you want to go a little farther, return to the footbridge, but go straight past it to the nature trail, a mile-long hike that goes to the John Ownby Cabin and brings you back to the footbridge. That will add about a half hour to the hike. It’s a great way to hike in the National Park without overly exerting yourself.
Even though it is a relatively easy trail, it is still best to follow the National Park Service’s safety guidelines. Wear proper hiking gear – including the right shoes as the trail can get muddy.
Bring water to drink and be aware of the forecast. It’s always a good idea to carry a trail map. Sure, it’s an easy short walk but people have managed to get confused or lost in the park under lesser conditions.
How deep is the water at Cataract Falls?
Cataract Falls is not the largest waterfall and certainly not a swimming hole. It’s fed by Cataract Branch which is a relatively small creek. The best time to see the falls in all their glory is after a good rain, particularly heavy rain, which increases the water flow.
What it lacks in power, however, it makes up for in beauty. It’s a very picturesque fall and makes for great photography opportunities.
Also, if you can get there without other hikers, it can be a very peaceful, calm spot in the mountains.
Does cataract mean waterfall?
Kind of, yeah.
So, what is the difference between cataracts and waterfalls?
A cataract is a type of waterfall. Like a square is always a rectangle, but a rectangle is not always a square, a cataract is always a waterfall but a waterfall is not always a cataract.
Specifically, a cataract is a large, powerful waterfall. I don’t think, somewhat ironically, that Cataract Falls qualifies as a cataract.
I think, and I’m no scientist, that Cataract Falls would land somewhere between a cascade and a horsetail among the types of waterfall classifications.
Is the trail accessible?
There are accessible parking spaces and part of the trail is slightly paved but I would stop short of calling it accessible.
There are parts of the trail that those using wheelchairs or mobility equipment would not be able to pass without significant help.
The visitors center is accessible. And there are three waterfalls in the park that can be seen from the road or parking area. They are The Sinks, Meigs Falls and the exquisitely named The Place of a Thousand Drips.
Cataract Falls in Indiana
If you’re looking up Cataract Falls, it’s worth noting that there’s another waterfall by the same name in Indiana.
This one, perhaps less ironically named, is the largest waterfall by volume in the state and is part of the Lieber State Recreation area.
It consists of two sets of waterfalls on Mill Creek, separated by about one mile. It is much larger than Cataract Falls near Gatlinburg.
Have you visited Cataract Falls in the Smokies? What did you think? Let us know in the comments.